Note: The writer of this review watched Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
It’s fascinating to watch a cultural phenomenon unfold in nearly real time. Billie Eilish’s debut EP, Don’t Smile At Me, may have been a sleeper hit in the U.S. and elsewhere, but most people still hadn’t heard of her when the 16-year-old musician (and her brother/producer/co-songwriter, Finneas) hit the road for a series of club dates in support of it, playing to mid-sized rooms largely filled with young female fans. Cut to little more than a year later, and everything has changed: Eilish became a global superstar in roughly the same amount of time it took her to go from having a learner’s permit to a driver’s license. It’s a hell of a thing to begin a year psyched that your parents finally got you your own car, and then end it by becoming the youngest person (and first woman) ever to win all four major Grammys categories in the same year.
It’s easy for anyone outside the artist’s inner circle of friends and family to forget that, despite the world-conquering success, the talented icon is still just a teenager. Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry, the new film from veteran documentarian R.J. Cutler (The September Issue), goes a long way toward reminding viewers of that fact, in ways both subtle and not. Some of the examples are playful: Here’s Eilish, showing off silly drawings of genitalia like a mischievous schoolkid, or goofing around on Instagram Live late at night. Others are more symbolic (the aforementioned driver’s test), and still additional sequences of hanging with her friends or moping around her family home lend a prosaic counterbalance to the clips of Eilish performing for tens of thousands of screaming fans.
A peek behind the curtain of her private life during this tumultuous rise to international fame is the draw of the film, and The World’s A Little Blurry manages to deliver a compelling and intimate portrait of Billie Eilish without ever coming across as carefully PR-approved or evading knottier aspects of her life. (Though not listed as a producer, Eilish admitted to Stephen Colbert that she would sometimes order the camera crew around.) Sequence after sequence finds a surprisingly candid and unpredictable artist offering up honest assessments of herself, others, and the pressures of her job, often with little consideration as to whether it might come across as unflattering. This is no glossy, propagandistic pop-star profile, à la Katy Perry: Part Of Me or Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. When a circle of people surrounds Eilish after a performance to pay effusive tribute—she was great, she was perfect, everyone loves her, and so on—the camera lingers on the subsequent silence just long enough to suggest a downside to all the endless praise.
Some of this likely reflects a generational shift: Whereas millennial stars like Perry and Bieber were arguably part of the last guard of traditionally stage-managed personas, Gen-Z artists like Eilish or Bella Thorne grew up documenting their lives online, with a warts-and-all openness that our culture still has yet to fully unpack or understand. As a result, there are endless reams of homemade video clips and raw footage of the star that give the movie a degree of immersive honesty uncommon to music-icon docs. There’s a telling subplot that runs through the doc in which Eilish—who had an obsessive crush on Bieber when she was 12 (an old clip finds the preteen tearfully worrying her first boyfriend will never live up to the true love she has for the Beebs)—finally meets the Canadian singer, and his gracious response to their interaction helps her gain perspective on her own relationship to her fans. By the second half of the film, when she’s begun to process just how intense a level of scrutiny her life will receive from now on, she launches into a rambling and anxiety-ridden tirade about how she fears she can never be “anything but perfect” in front of others, ever again.
Still, this isn’t a Radiohead-style mope about the displeasures of fame, either. The film’s nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime is split in half, complete with intermission: The first part documents the recording of her million-selling debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, while the second half details her struggle to adjust to life in the wake of success, especially the physical toll of touring. (Eilish suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and recurring leg ailments/injuries, to name two of the most obvious challenges.) But the consistent themes throughout are the love-hate relationship she has with the making of her art, and the manner in which her solid, loving family dynamic seems to be sustaining her—a support system many young artists, forced too quickly into the limelight, historically lack. Her parents are a constant and stabilizing presence in her life, providing an outlet for her emotional ups and downs in much the same way older brother Finneas serves as the calm, businesslike voice of their professional obligations. (There’s a very funny scene early on where Finneas, having been asked by the label to come up with a hit single, explains his plan to essentially trick his sister into writing the most “accessible” song they’ve ever done.) The story of a prodigy struggling to deal with the harsh light of fame is a familiar one, but Eilish’s engaging and relatable persona—sometimes empathetic, sometimes exasperating, but always recognizably honest—keeps it fresh.
There are some compelling performances, a few uncomfortable interpersonal exchanges, and despite a slightly meandering second half, a conclusion that actually feels like a logical endpoint for both the film and the first act of what promises to be a fascinating career. Ultimately, the best parts of The World’s A Little Blurry are the stuff of the best documentaries on brilliant musicians: unguarded moments of raw human truth, whether it’s Eilish struggling through the indefinable act of artistic creation, or—better still—the singer and her brother sprawled out on a couch in their childhood home, scrolling through their phones and making each other laugh or groan like any other pair of siblings. The glitzy, manufactured nature of stardom may indeed cloud someone’s vision, but this film reveals some crystal-clear insights into the vital importance of stabilizing influences on a young artist, one who’s still trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world around her.